What is rural? The federal government's different definitions serve many different purposes

We often get asked how we define "rural." The easy answer, and the easy way, is "non-metropolitan." But that is a very blunt instrument, because standard metropolitan statistical areas are defined by commuting patterns. So many rural people commute to cities, many counties that are essentially rural are included in metropolitan areas. In fact, those counties have many rural residents -- so many that about half the rural population of the U.S. is in metro areas. There are many other ways to define "rural," ranging so widely that "The share of the U.S. population considered rural ranges from 17 to 49 percent depending on the definition used," the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture explained in its electronic magazine, Amber Waves.

"The use of multiple definitions reflects the reality that rural and urban are multidimensional concepts, making clear-cut distinctions between the two difficult," John Cromartie and Shawn Bucholtz write. "Is population density the defining concern, or is it geographic isolation? Is it small population size that makes it necessary to distinguish rural from urban? If so, how small is rural? Because the U.S. is a nation in which so many people live in areas that are not clearly rural or urban, seemingly small changes in the way rural areas are defined can have large impacts on who and what are considered rural." (Read more)


Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies
122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director al.cross@uky.edu